12 Nuclear Tourism Destinations

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If you’re looking for a unique vacation experience, skip the beach this year and check out some of the world’s most notorious locations from the Atomic Age. A relatively new trend, nuclear tourism involves traveling to significant sites in atomic history. The headlines — including those for Japan's Fukushima disaster in March 2011 — make the concept controversial, but that's also what draws people in to learn more. These destinations include nuclear testing sites, “secret cities” involved in the Manhattan Project and the locations of nuclear disasters. While such sites are scattered throughout the world, several are located in the U.S., the birthplace of the nuclear bomb, and many are still cloaked in secrecy, allowing tours just once a year.

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Photo: Eamonn Butler/Flickr [CC by 2.0]

The site of the worst nuclear disaster in history became a tourist attraction in 2011 when the Ukranian government deemed the radiation risks “negligible.” On April 26, 1986, a nuclear reactor at Chernobyl exploded, spewing out 400 times more radioactive fallout than the Hiroshima bomb. After the disaster, a highly contaminated area within a 30-mile radius of the reactor was sealed off until last year. Today, visitors can tour parts of Chernobyl, view the sarcophagus built over the plant, feed catfish in the nuclear plant’s cooling pond, and possibly tour the town of Pripyat where radiation levels are still relatively high.

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Oak Ridge, Tennessee

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Oak Ridge didn't exist until the federal government evicted the area's rural residents in 1942, and the city didn't appear on a map until after World War II. Known as the "Secret City," it was established as one of three sites for developing materials for the Manhattan Project, and its residents lived a life of secrecy. The entire city was gated, the homes had no addresses, and the workers weren't told what they were working on. Today, Oak Ridge is still home to four secret military facilities, which U.S. citizens can tour one day only during the annual Secret City Festival. In addition to these one-of-a-kind tours, the city is also home to the American Museum of Science & Energy and the International Friendship Bell, the first monument between a U.S. Manhattan Project city and Japan.

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Nevada Test Site

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President Harry Truman established this site as the country's on-continent nuclear weapons testing area, and today the area is open to public tours once a quarter. Visitors have the opportunity to walk through "Doom Town," sets constructed by the Atomic Energy Commission to test the effect of radiation on buildings and the environment, and they'll see the Sedan crater, a 320-foot deep crater that resulted from a nuclear test. To find out the date of the next tour, contact the Department of Energy's Office of Public Affairs. Appointments must be made weeks in advance.

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Greenbrier bunker

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In 1961, a secret underground bunker was completed beneath The Greenbrier Resort in Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, to protect Congress in the event of nuclear attack. The 112,544-square-foot bunker was built 720 feet into the hillside and had three outdoor entrances and one secret entrance inside the resort — a 25-ton blast door. It also featured decontamination chambers, a power plant, water storage tanks, a clinic with operating rooms, a pharmacy, and dormitories to accommodate more than 1,100 people. How did the government maintain such a massive effort? A group of employees worked undercover as the hotel's audio/visual service. The location of the facility remained a secret for more than 30 years until the Washington Post exposed it in a 1992 article. At that time, the government ended its lease with the resort, and The Greenbrier Resort began offering bunker tours.

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Hiroshima, Japan

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Hiroshima is known as the first city in history to be destroyed by a nuclear weapon. On Aug. 6, 1945, the U.S. Air Force dropped an atomic bomb known as "Little Boy" onto the city, destroying almost 5 square miles of Hiroshima and killing 30 percent of the city's population. Today, tourists can learn about the bomb's terrible impact at the Hiroshima Peace Site, which is home to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and the Atomic Bomb Dome (pictured). Constructed in 1915 as a commercial building, the domed building was gutted by the bomb, and all the people inside it died instantly. Today the dome is a United Nations World Heritage Site and serves as a symbol for the abolition of nuclear weapons and a reminder of the devastation the bomb caused.

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Nagasaki, Japan

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On Aug. 9, 1945, Nagasaki became the site of the second and final wartime use of a nuclear weapon. The atomic bomb killed 74,000 people and instantly transformed the city into ruins. Today, visitors can tour the Nagasaki National Peace Memorial Hall for the Atomic Bomb Victims and visit the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum and the Peace Park.

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Titan Missile Museum

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The Titan Missile Museum in Sahuarita, Arizona, is the only publicly accessible Titan II missile silo in the United States. Visitors to this unique museum experience a simulated launch in the command center, walk through 3-ton blast doors, tour the underground missile site and see an actual Titan II missile in the launch duct. The 110-foot-tall missile is harmless now, but weighed 170 tons when it was fueled and ready to launch.

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Hanford site

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The federal government created the Hanford nuclear reservation in 1943 as part of the Manhattan Project, and the Washington site is home to the B reactor, the world's first full-scale nuclear reactor. More than 20 years after Hanford stopped producing plutonium, it remains the country's most contaminated nuclear site — and as of 2015, it's also a national park. Visitors won't venture near the nation’s largest collection of toxic radioactive waste, but they'll get to tour the B reactor, as well as the ghost towns of Hanford and White Bluffs.

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Bikini Atoll

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Bikini Atoll is part of the Micronesian Islands and was the location of 23 U.S. atomic bomb tests from 1946 through 1958. The Bravo test in 1954 was the most powerful bomb the U.S. ever detonated — it was much more destructive than predicted and resulted in widespread radioactive contamination. Scuba divers can visit the atoll and explore its sunken fleet of 10 ships that were anchored in the lagoon during the nuclear tests. While the local government closed the atoll for tourism in 2008, some groups are still allowed to dive on the wrecks if they make arrangements with Bikini Atoll Divers.

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Trinity Atomic Bomb site

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The first atomic bomb was tested at the Trinity Site in New Mexico on July 16, 1945, and visitors can see Ground Zero where the bomb was placed on a 100-foot steel tower before detonation. Tours of the site also include the McDonald house where the world's first plutonium bomb core was assembled, as well as historical photographs and a replica of the casing used on Fat Man, the bomb that was detonated over Nagasaki, Japan.

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Savannah River Site

Photo: U.S. Department of Energy/Wikimedia Commons [CC by 1.0]

This nuclear reservation in South Carolina was constructed in the 1950s to produce materials used in the creation of nuclear weapons, and there are five nuclear reactors on the site. Only U.S. citizens are permitted on the 30 annual public tours, which consist of a bus trip by the five reactors and the two canyons. The free tours begin and end at the Center for Hydrogen Research in Aiken, South Carolina, and participants must reserve a space in advance.

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Los Alamos, N.M.

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Los Alamos is often referred to as the "Atomic City" because of its role in the Manhattan Project. In 1942, the federal government used its power of eminent domain to take over the Los Alamos Ranch School for Robert Oppenheimer and the other scientists working to build the atomic bomb. Today, the area is home to the Los Alamos National Laboratory whose Bradbury Science Museum has a Defense Gallery that contains such items as a W80 warhead, an air-launched cruise missile and B61 and B83 bombs. The Los Alamos Historical Museum houses photos of atomic testing, Oppenheimer's memos and copies of leaflets the U.S. dropped in Japan to warn citizens about the bomb.